The human costs of ‘strategic partnerships’ with South Caucasian states

I write this as I learn of the beating death of an Azerbaijani journalist Rasim Aliyev. His “crime” was to post a Facebook item about football. What follows seems insignificant compared to his murder.

Two articles have appeared in prominent Western outlets in the past month addressing developments in the South Caucasus and the need for adjustments in U.S. (and Western) policy toward the region. The first was an excellent, in-depth Brookings report titled “Retracing the Caucasian Circle—Considerations and Constraints for U.S., EU, and Turkish Engagement in the South Caucasus”; the second was a shorter essay that Bill Courtney, Denis Corboy, and I penned for Newsweek on the need to reboot policy toward Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Both reflected the difficulty of writing about the “South Caucasus” as if the three countries had common interests and objectives. Increasingly these interests and objectives are diverging, except for a growing unhappiness with the United States and the West for not paying attention to—or doing enough to support—the region. In the case of Azerbaijan, the frustration stems from U.S. leaders paying too much attention to the appalling human rights situation in the country.

What’s making the Azerbaijanis so upset with the West?

The authors of the Brookings report point to elite cynicism over Western disinterest and policy failures in the region as sources of Azerbaijani leaders’ unhappiness. This, in their view, is causing Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan—for different reasons and in different ways—to tack toward Russia.

We have a different take in our Newsweek piece. We argue that the unhappiness results from governing elites recognizing that U.S. and Western policy regarding human rights, democracy building, corruption, and conflict resolution (especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) threaten regime stability. Therefore, the tacking toward Russia is a conscious choice to avoid pressure and the transparency that closer association with the United States and Europe would involve.

The new orientation of these countries requires serious adjustment in Western policies. There are four new drivers prompting change (beyond the role of Russia): the regional consequences of the Iran nuclear agreement; the growing economic crisis, which is affecting the South Caucasian states in different ways; the threat of renewed military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; and the internal security implications of suppression of human rights. While each country responds to these drivers in different ways, they are the source of a new dynamic in the South Caucasus that requires a fresh Western policy approach.

Three wild cards will shape these drivers and the Western approach to them: First, how hard will Russian President Vladimir Putin push his objective of rolling back the degree of Western influence achieved since the fall of the Soviet Union? Second, how well will Iran play the nuclear agreement card, especially regarding its reentry into global energy markets? Third, how distracting will Turkey’s military response to the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) be for Turkey’s interests in the South Caucasus and its objective of becoming a regional energy hub?

The shortcomings of soft regionalism

What is to be done? Faced with such a challenging situation, the default policy response is to provide more assistance (economic and military), dispatch senior officials from Western capitals to visit the region, and indulge (rather than criticize) democracy and human rights abuses, all in the name of developing a strategic partnership. In other words: Show more love.

That business-as-usual approach is inappropriate for these challenging times. In the case of Azerbaijan, it is an inappropriate response to the continued violations by the Baku regime of basic human rights and freedom of expression.

The Brookings paper suggests a multilateral approach (involving the United States, EU, and Turkey) based on soft regionalism. I do not believe that soft regionalism will work. The best we can hope for is parallel bilateral engagement on the basis of common interests (e.g. conflict prevention) and shared values (e.g. democratic evolution, observance of human rights). We need to treat the energy issue in the region as a commercial rather than geopolitical one. Changes in the global energy market have undermined the geopolitical significance of Caspian energy resources compared to two decades ago. With low energy prices likely the norm for the near future, energy no longer plays a strategic role for the region. Among other weaknesses, the soft regionalism prescription implies coordinated interests with Turkey—this will be difficult absent an opening in Turkish-Armenian relations.

Who needs who more?

The burden of choice in this relationship with the West must shift from the outside parties to the South Caucasian states themselves. The outsiders should stop talking about “strategic” partnerships, trans-Caspian pipelines and Silk Roads because this perpetuates a “you-need-us-more-than-we-need-you” starting point. Rather, the time has come for Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to decide on their own where their interests coincide with those of the West. That’s where we and they can begin to develop meaningful relationships, rather than trying to invent a veneer to cover differences—as in the case of Azerbaijan’s record on human rights.

Another recent article in Newsweek, by Theodore Gerber and Jane Zavisca, raised questions about promoting democracy and human rights where populations and elites are skeptical of U.S. motivations in promoting these issues. Fairly, the article questions the effectiveness of the traditional instruments of promoting opposition political parties and local NGOs as a way of winning “hearts and minds” in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, these traditional instruments tend to emphasize the attractiveness of the “American way of life” through student and scientific exchanges. This offers a variant on the soft regionalism theme advanced in the Brookings paper. Both require a receptivity to change that both elites and populations increasingly find threatening. Developing a values-based relationship is difficult when values diverge.

To the extent our interests do not coincide, then the Western policy focus must be transactional and rest exclusively on conflict prevention and/or amelioration. It also should not shy away from pressing all three South Caucasian states on their obligations to observe international standards regarding human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression.